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Va. Tech panel advises university to pull funding on campus media

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By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Virginia Tech advisory committee has recommended that the university cut funding to all campus media unless the student newspaper bans anonymous comments on its Web site.

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The University Commission on Student Affairs, which is made up of mostly students, decided that the way the newspaper monitors online comments is irresponsible, lacks accountability, victimizes students and misrepresents the university, according to minutes of its meetings. The commission has asked administrators to withhold an annual $70,000 contribution to the student newspaper's parent organization, the Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech, which oversees all campus media, including the newspaper, radio station, television station, yearbook and literary magazine.

The student newspaper, the Collegiate Times, does not receive any of the university money, although it does receive free office space in the student union, said Kelly Wolff, general manager of the media company.

The commission is also considering a recommendation that the university ban student organizations from using university funds to buy advertisements in the newspaper, which could put the Collegiate Times out of business.

The newspaper's Web site uses a filter that screens profanity, pornography and spam from the comments section and allows readers to flag objectionable comments for editors to review and, if necessary, remove. But they have declined the commission's requests to bar anonymous comments.

"It's important to allow the people of this community . . . to express agreement or disagreement with what we put in the newspaper," said Editor in Chief Sara Mitchell, a junior political science major from Vienna. "We as editors control the content. The university can't dictate our content."

The issue of online comments first surfaced two years ago, when incidences of violence on campus led to racist posts on the student paper's Web site. "Meanwhile, individuals and groups are continuing to be victimized verbally by individuals enabled by the commenting system," said the commission chairwoman, Michelle McLeese, in a letter to the newspaper's parent company this week. McLeese, a graduate student, did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment and did not answer her cellphone Friday afternoon. This story was first reported by The Roanoke Times.

University spokesman Larry Hincker said, "The university does not intend to stop the contract" it has with the media company. The resolution is "a very strong way of saying to the Collegiate Times that we need to talk."

The students on the commission were addressing comments that "border on hate crimes," Hincker said. "These are college students who want to live in a world where college newspapers don't post hateful material."

But the resolution alarms Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, which has been advising the Collegiate Times.

"The harsh reality is that the First Amendment protects offensive and hurtful comments" and that colleges can't "legislate niceness," he said.

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